There are mere mortals, and then there are super humans who get twice as much done in a day as the rest of us.
Karina LeBlanc is the latter. As a decorated Olympian soccer player for the Canadian national team, she has played in 5 world cups and 2 Olympic Games. Since retiring from soccer, she has become an Ambassador for UNICEF, TECK Resources and Canada Goose. It’s not unusual for her to wake up on a different continent, speaking in front of an audience of 20,000 kids, or the heads of states of the assembled UN. She recently spoke at the UNICEF United Nations General Assembly in New York on the topic of “What is Your Why?”. We had the opportunity to chat with her about some of the habits she’s developed that help her stay focused and able to accomplish all that she does. Her secret? Staying as present as possible in every moment and living your life authentically.
Through speaking, writing and your humanitarian endeavours, you are a motivational force to be reckoned with. How do you stay motivated yourself?
I would say through my experiences playing for team Canada I developed a lot of habits that help me stay motivated. When you play for a national team, you need to maintain your best at all times. But beyond soccer, becoming a UNICEF Ambassador gave me the opportunity to understand my purpose on this earth. Everyday I wake up and am motivated to fulfill that purpose. Not every day is a perfect day but I try. Just as you have to physically train your body to be able to do high performance sports, you have to train your mind. I love being connected to people and circumstances; that’s what drives me. I think being a goalkeeper also helped. There is a lot pressure to perform but instead of focusing on the negative you can think about making a save that will make you a hero. I love the pressure.
You’ve highlighted that 97% of Women CEOs or Board Members have had some experience playing on a sport team in the past. Aside from helping you develop good mental habits, how has your experience with soccer impacted where you are today?
Hugely. I moved to Canada when I was 8, and was bullied. It’s hard to believe now, but I was a shy kid when I grew up, and soccer gave me a way to connect with others. Soccer gave me confidence and taught me how to fail. I was cut from the first big team I tried out for. That failure was a beautiful thing because heading into the next year, I did an extra 15 minutes of practice per day. It’s also taught me how to handle pressure. I’m a goalkeeper and there is a lot of pressure because you’re the last line of defense: if you mess up everyone sees it. All of these little lessons have contributed to my confidence today. Sports definitely helped me develop a high performance mindset as well. Through developing that you don’t look for excuses and instead just get it done. I always tell parents to put their kids in sports. It’s not about being the next Olympian – you learn about setting a goal, how to communicate, and leadership. I’m not a parent, but I think generally parents do their best to protect kids from failure but on the field no one has complete control. You fail and then learn to re-bound quickly. It helps to subconsciously train your mind.
Do you think you were inherently born with a love for pressure or did you have to teach yourself to love it?
I’m not sure I taught myself, but because my life hasn’t been easy, I learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’m fine in situations people would categorize as “uncomfortable”, because I don’t think I know the difference. Since retirement, no two days of my life have been the same. I thrive in changing circumstances. It’s why I’m able to go on a stage and speak to twenty thousand people and speak from the heart. Instead of being afraid, I love it. I think my brain has been trained to love new and challenging situations rather than the feel fear. In moments of uncertainty you can still tell yourself you’re going to own it even if you aren’t sure how it’s going to turn out. Focus on being courageous in the face of a new opportunity and what it could bring. If I played my life safe and stayed in my comfort zone I wouldn’t be here today.
You are frequently travelling to multiple time zones, how do you battle jetlag?
It’s honestly just a choice. Just decide to not let your tiredness be an excuse. I’m also quite used to it because I travelled often with the national team. When I land I’ll go for a jog or walk around the city to keep myself up. When I’ve just landed in a new city for a speaking event and I’m tired, no one cares. They only care that I do a good job at whatever it is I’m there to do, usually speak. It’s always important for me in life to never play a victim. Sports has also helped me in this aspect. I’ve played in big games where I was tired and there was a lot going on but still had to be able to focus on being present in the game.
Despite how much your circumstances vary from day to day, do you have a morning routine that helps you stay centered?
On my bathroom mirror at home, I’ve posted a note that says, “If I were to die tomorrow, what would I die with that God meant for me to share with the world?” It’s pretty heavy but the gist is to remind me to live my purpose. I wish I could say I have the same ritual every morning, I used to. But now it’s so different, I wake up on a different continent with a different time zone often. I just get up and go and ensure I’m my best self that day.
You recently spoke at the UNICEF UN General Assembly on “What is Your Why”. What advice do you have for people looking to find their why?
Its one of my favorite keynotes to give. The underlying message of that speech is to help people understand that if they really want to live their best lives, they need to understand why they’re here. Most people don’t ask themselves the hard questions: “What is my purpose on this earth?” It’s an uncomfortable process but you must start asking yourself every day: “What am I passionate about?”, “What makes me feel alive?” Think of moments where you felt true joy when your heart screamed, “Yes!” So, start there and keep doing more of that, whatever that is. If you can’t find answers to those questions then you need to do things you’ve never done.
When people tell me they want to change the world, I tell them to start by being the person you want to be to the people closest to you and then expand out. Maybe your purpose it to have an impact on one person’s life, even if that is your own to start with. But you won’t find it if you don’t start looking.
What is your process for setting goals in your life?
My goals change all the time; it’s important to be adaptable. When I retired I had to reevaluate my goals and think of who I was outside of “Karina the Olympic soccer player”. I started saying yes to many things to figure out what I could do. My goals change but at the end of the day, I have one overarching goal that guides me and that is to live my life purposefully. I can control this every day in how I interact with people. No matter what the circumstances I always have the ability to succeed with this goal. It serves as my compass and helps me be exactly the same whether I’m speaking with you now, or meeting a Prime Minister, or a little kid. I’m not trying to be fluffy: I know that some days, the best version of me isn’t going to be as good as other days, but it’s how you choose to respond. For example I’m from Dominica, which was just demolished by Hurricane Maria. I was on stage at the UNICEF event to speak 48 hours after the hurricane happened. We couldn’t find my grandmother, we had no communication. I remember being on stage and watching the video that introduced me, and there was footage from when I was in Dominica with UNICEF. I hadn’t slept because we were in action mode trying to find my grandmother. And in that moment I realized I hadn’t yet fully felt the emotions of all of these events and I was on stage and realized, “Oh my God I’m about to cry before I even start speaking” When the video went down I looked at the audience and paused, and said “What you just saw in that video is no longer. We haven’t found my grandmother and this is harder than it usually is.” I connected with them and let them know, “this is who you’re going to get today. I’m going to be vulnerable with you and still try to give you my best”. Not every day is easy but take the situation in stride: I could have shut down but I was honest and real and authentically me.
To donate to help with Hurricane relief in Dominica, or here to give to UNICEF.